The sociopolitical implications of ancient divination

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


On Friday, Inkblood Book Co. (which is in the process of publishing one of my flash fiction stories) posted a microfiction prompt (“liminal”) and I decided to take part. So now I need to figure out how auguries & other forms of divination fit into the worldbuilding of my fictional universe.

Fun Facts

  • Chinese oracle bones work by writing a question onto a (shoulder) bone (or turtle shell) and then touching it with red-hot metal; the cracks were then interpreted by a shaman or king.
  • Unlucky days in Rome were sometimes the anniversaries of historically significant defeats.
  • Looked at one way, ritually sacrificed animals were inspected by Roman priests for signs of ill health, then eaten by festival participants.
  • Both the Roman and Aztec capital cities had foundation myths centered around augury (signs provided by birds; vultures and eagles, respectively).
  • As with Odin and his ravens, Roman augury was centered around benevolent interactions between special mortals, gods, and particular avian messengers.

A Cynical Veto

In Rome in the 50s B.C.E., abuse of religious obstruction became a politicized veto. Magistrates (previously unable to perform augury) no longer had to see the relevant omen, they could just declare an intention to "watch the sky" in order to stymie the assembly; they didn’t even have to be present for the thing the vote was trying to stop. [Read More]

Competing Auguries

Part of the conflict between Romulus and Remus centered around augury interpretation. Six vultures came first to Remus, followed by twelve to Romulus. Their followers argued (and fought) about which was the more significant sign. Eventually, Romulus killed Remus. [Read More]

Friend to Foe

Although hunter-gatherers (and wolves!) value ravens for their scouting abilities and the way they can identify distant game, more settled populations often come to revile them for their propensity for scavenging meat from human corpses. In ancient Ireland, people believed their calls were prophetic; the goddess Athene “hated the raven for its powers of augury.” [Read More]

Wedding Signs

Roman augurs were magistrates concerned with public, not private, affairs — with one exception: marriages. Mongolian marriage customs also include augury and the search for lucky signs on a chicken’s liver. The engaged couple can’t set a wedding date until they find the lucky sign. [Read More]

If you found this interesting, you may enjoy my article about how ancient priests were experts!


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